Being green means more green all the way around
Growing up in upstate New York, Collin O’Mara, now Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), saw firsthand what environmental and economic degradation can do to a community.
With plant closures and jobs moving overseas and friends moving to other states, it was easy for him to realize at a young age the importance of a clean environment to a sound economy.
“Syracuse struggled to keep their economic base, with plant closures, jobs going overseas. And Onondaga Lake is one of the most polluted in the country. So I saw early on the negative impacts from not having the economic strategy that protected the environment,” he explained recently in an exclusive interview with the Coastal Point. “They thought if you have a strong economy, you have to set the environment aside. And [in doing that], they got neither.”
O’Mara also spoke of the downward spiral that brings to a community – from poverty to crime – and the importance of not having an economic strategy without the environmental plan.
“We have to move past the belief that it’s an either/or trade-off,” said O’Mara of the economy and the environment. “It’s not. We can do both.”
After high school, O’Mara aattended Dartmouth as an undergraduate and studied at Oxford, where he met his wife. He was a Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford, a University Fellow at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, and a Presidential Scholar at Dartmouth College.
Before coming to Delaware, O’Mara served as the clean-tech strategist for the City of San Jose, Calif., where he assisted the City of San Jose in attracting more than 50 clean-technology companies, which created more than 3,000 new jobs and generated nearly $2 billion of new investment.
It was those credentials that made Delaware Gov. Jack Markell take notice while he was filling his cabinet positions.
“The governor had hopes of finding someone to help move the state into a clean-energy economy,” said O’Mara – adding, with a chuckle, that people always want to know how he got his job and did he know the governor beforehand? (No, he didn’t.)
In his position, he is responsible for DNREC’s five major divisions – Air and Waste Management, Fish and Wildlife, Parks and Recreation, Soil and Water Conservation and Water Resources – and the Office of the Secretary, which encompasses the Delaware Energy Office, as well as “leading the Governor’s efforts to create a thriving green economy and sustainable natural environment.”
During O’Mara’s seven months as DNREC Secretary, the state has seen many changes in terms of the economy and industry – changes that, if followed through upon, could be stepping stones to that clean-energy economy.
O’Mara spoke of the shutdown of the Valero plant – both one of the largest employers in the state and one of its biggest polluters. The state has since met with Valero executives to see if the site can be used for something similar or if it can be cleaned up and redeveloped for a better purpose.
Additionally, with up-and-coming manufacturer Fisker occupying the old GM plant, the state seems to also be moving ahead in the way of a greener economy. Fisker will begin manufacturing high-end plug-in vehicles there in the near future.
“We are moving into unchartered territory in the state for energy and climate policy,” O’Mara said. He said he believes Delaware can become a leader in the industry but that it also could see more impacts from environmental degradation due to its low-lying geography, in terms of sea-level rise, saltwater intrusion, impacts on migrating species and flooding.
Also, in terms of energy-related industry, the Secretary said Bluewater Wind is in a position to really change the game for Delaware and beyond.
“Bluewater Wind has the potential to change the way we think about energy on the East Coast,” he said.
O’Mara said DNREC is doing a lot of cutting-edge work in terms of air and water quality and, in the coming months, will be working to restructure so as to use resources better and more efficiently in these challenging economic times.
In a Thanksgiving letter to employees that had been shared at several town hall-type meetings, the Secretary wrote about some impending changes over the course of several months to a year and half out.
“As a result of all of these efforts, we’ve been thinking through a new structure for the way the department operates,” he explained. “I shared the outline of this at the town hall meetings, specifically looking to group the natural resource (Parks, Fish and Wildlife, Soil and Water Conservation) and the environmental protection (Water Resources, Air Quality, Waste Management/Soils) functions more closely to increase collaboration and reduce inefficiencies/duplications of effort, as well as increasing our capacity in the emerging areas of energy and climate.”
O’Mara said that he recently submitted to the Office of Management and Budget a proposed budget for the 2011 fiscal year that will “support the initial steps of the transformation and, hopefully, lays the groundwork for fulfilling these aspirations.”
The Secretary has an overall, holistic approach that holds that the environment and the economy are inextricably linked.
To break it down for someone as to why they should care about the environment, or how it affects them personally, he offers this: At the end of the day, being environmental stewards saves money. If less water and energy is used, people pay less.
“It makes financial sense,” he said. “In transportation, with carpooling, there is less gas. In recycling, if you are not throwing things away … it all comes back to the economics of the consumer.”
He also emphasized that there are job opportunities when a new market demand is created, and healthcare costs can be reduced when the environment is a priority. For example, in taking down Units 1 and 2 at the Indian River Generating Station in Millsboro and changing controls on Units 3 and 4 by 2011, the IRGS will evolve “from being one of the 50 dirtiest to one of the 10 cleanest” generating stations in the country.
Eventually, the Secretary said, he would like Delaware to be a national model for what having a clean-energy economy can look like. He noted that the state has already risen from No. 32 in the nation to No. 20 for energy-efficiency economies, in just six months – the biggest improvement in the country, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy.
“I love what I am doing now,” said O’Mara. “The governor has an incredible vision. There’s a saying: ‘Before you can be captain of the team, we have to be on the field.’ Well, we are on the field."